PRINT March 2003


1981: Keith Haring’s Wild Style

ONE AFTERNOON in late spring of 1981, I was taking a lunch break from my new job as exhibition coordinator for the now defunct Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. The IAUS, a think tank propelled into existence in 1967 by Peter Eisenman, was located on Fortieth Street just west of Fifth Avenue. Part of the IAUS mission—along with publishing October, Skyline, and Oppositions and hosting frequent panel discussions—was to mount exhibitions of architects and projects deemed sympathetic to the founder’s ideals and methodologies. I was recruited to oversee the logistics of these shows, whose parameters remained somewhat vague during my yearlong tenure. It wasn’t the curatorial job I’d been looking for, but it was the closest I’d gotten to being paid for doing what I wanted to do. Having moved to New York not quite two years earlier, I was still finding it difficult to get my bearings in the art world, and to make ends meet.

An article about Keith Haring in the Village Voice was fresh enough in my memory that I knew who he was the instant I saw him, though, of course, I had no idea yet of what he had to do with me. It was a moment of perfect serendipity: A sunny spring day, a blur of movement in the corner of my eye, a curious peek over a few shoulders, and there he was, ten feet in front of me, at the foot of the steps of the New York Public Library. Armed with two large sticks of white chalk, he had just finished marking out the frame of the drawing and was now starting on the figures in earnest. I was struck by the fact that he did not appear to have announced his intentions, as those who were gathering around him seemed fully confused about what was happening.

The entire eight- to ten-foot-square drawing—which I remember (perhaps incorrectly) as a dolphin-baby combination, a little rougher and more wobbly than the subway drawings that would soon begin popping up around the city—took less than five minutes to complete, and suddenly he was gone, vanished back into the crowd. For a full minute more I stood in stunned silence, gaping at the drawing, at the faces of my fellow New Yorkers on lunch break, at the spot in the crowd where he’d last been seen. At first I thought he might return, but then I realized in a flash that the implicit illegality of the act I’d just witnessed was key to its meaning. Though I had read about process art, seen plenty of performances at the Kitchen, and even gone the year before to see “The Times Square Show”—a sprawling mess of rebellious art crammed into a Forty-first Street massage parlor—the Haring sighting was unprecedented in my experience of art up to that day. What would inspire a presumably middle-class white kid no different from me to choose this hazardous and ephemeral mode of artmaking? And why was I working a day job that was only fractionally fulfilling? Was there something I wasn’t getting?

Over the next couple years my path intersected with Haring’s several times. I went to an open studio at P.S. 122 a few months later for the express purpose of meeting him (and chickened out), photographed a wall painting he made for the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s Alternatives in Retrospect catalogue, and even chatted him up one night at Danceteria. His career very quickly became a matter of public record—he was championed in Artforum by Rene Ricard (1981), soloed at Tony Shafrazi (1982), appeared in Charlie Ahearn’s film Wild Style (1982), showed at Fun Gallery (1983)—and I developed the feeling, also new, that my life had brushed, however fleetingly, with art history.

My own career as a critic and curator was just beginning, and soon enough (two years later, once I began publishing) it became a point of professional pride with me to point out that I did not like the direction Haring’s work (nor, for that matter, the work of most early-’80s painters) had taken. It wasn’t personal, it was about the shape my own ideas were taking and the need to passionately defend certain principles while, just as passionately, debunking others. I glimpsed something during that long-ago lunch hour about taking responsibility for my own artistic ideals and for creating a discursive space where they could be shared. Some of this occurred to me only years after the fact, and I certainly never mentioned it to Keith. In fact we had little personal contact up to his death in 1990, and yet I always felt strangely certain, on some purely subjective level, that we were kindred spirits.

Dan Cameron is senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and is organizing the 8th International Istanbul Biennial.